Italian opera provides a perfect stage to showcase the art of soft power

Antonello De Riu says the continuing worldwide popularity of opera, one of Italy's most famous cultural products, reflects a successful strategy of projecting influence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 10:00am

Soft power" - the ability to project influence through means other than military might or direct economic power - is hard to define, but easy to recognise. It produces a number of virtuous feedback loops that reinforce and amplify the benefits that accrue to those that can deploy it.

In discussing soft power strategies, Asian observers often attempt to emulate the United States, whose soft power has been deployed most extensively and to greatest effect. But the US may not be the best model, for it has a number of advantages that are, in general, irreproducible by Asian places, such as being able to produce its cultural products in English, the world's global language, and having extremely large and deep domestic markets for popular-culture goods and services.

A smaller-scale and, perhaps, more improbable case study might prove more illuminating: Italian opera. Opera may not be specifically Italian - there is French, German, Russian and even English opera as well - but it is particularly Italian. This is not just a matter of history, which results in most of the terms used, from soprano to legato and coloratura, being Italian; one even cheers in Italian ("bravo").

It is also a matter of depth and breadth: at any given time, perhaps one of every two operas being performed outside Italy will be Italian. Composers from Austria (Handel, Mozart), Spain (Martín y Soler, Arrieta) and even Brazil (Gomes) wrote operas in Italian, while those operas written by Italians in other languages, notably Donizetti and Rossini's operas in French, remain part of the Italian repertoire.

The sources of soft power may be promoted and amplified by government policy but they reside somewhere deep in the people's culture - its soul, as Italians might say

Opera is very much rooted in the country of origin in the way orchestral music isn't. Rigoletto and Verdi, Tosca and Puccini are Italian in a way that Beethoven and his symphonies - even the ninth, which contains an entire movement of words - are not Austrian. For opera is not just words and music; it is also stories.

Tosca - produced locally by Opera Hong Kong next month - is in many ways the archetypal Italian story. Set in the fevered atmosphere of early 19th-century Rome, Tosca features an oppressive regime personified by a vile and lustful political enforcer, a prisoner of conscience, a rebel and Tosca, his lover, who come together in a heroic, triumphant tragedy.

In this opera, Puccini wrote of love and liberty, valour and depravity, treachery and honour. But Italy has no monopoly on passion and human dignity, and so, although Tosca can be seen as entirely Italian, it continues to thrill audiences on every continent.

This particular Opera Hong Kong production is a further illustration of the globalising power of Italian opera. The soprano singing the eponymous lead is He Hui, a Chinese soprano who now lives in Verona. Italian opera has long been welcoming of any nationality and race. And to do this, everyone must learn Italian.

Opera, therefore, is one of Italy's key avenues of soft power. It has spread around the world, and leading singers come from everywhere, great performances are sung from New York to Beijing. But opera's soul is still in Italy.

The sources of soft power may be promoted and amplified by government policy but they reside somewhere deep in the people's culture - its soul, as Italians might say. Hong Kong is now my home and the sources of any soft power that it might wield are immediately evident: its creativity, as evidenced in the success of its popular culture - opera, it must be remembered, was not that long ago "popular" rather than "high" culture - and an openness and vibrancy of its society resulting in a dynamism that rivals any city in the world.

Hong Kong's openness to both East and West gives it a particular opportunity in culture. While Hong Kong's market for cultural products may not be the largest, it is one of the more sophisticated. Hong Kong is therefore one of the best places to land and localise cultural forms such as Italian opera and then retransmit them to the larger markets that surround it. In this, it can count on the enthusiastic support of the fast-growing and ever more integrated Italian community, and on the interest of a growing number of local opera lovers.

Antonello De Riu is the consul general of Italy in Hong Kong